Last night I watched Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon‘s Making Montgomery Clift (1091 Media, streaming on 10.15), which may be the most deep-down accurate and highly complex portrait of the closeted, achingly sensitive, Oscar-nominated actor (best known for From Here To Eternity, Red River, I Confess, Freud, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Misfits) ever presented on a screen. Seriously — it’s really something else.
I’ve read two Clift biographies (Robert LaGuardia‘s “Monty” and Patricia Bosworth‘s “Montgomery Clift: A Biography“), and I came away from this viewing what felt like a more intimate, finely textured understanding of who the poor guy really was.
The 88-minute film is basically an assemblage of home movies, tape recordings and talking heads mixed with first-hand narration by Robert Clift, the son of Clift’s older brother, William Brooks Clift (1919–1986) and journalist Eleanor Clift, with creative collaboration from Hillary Demmon.
I was afraid at first that the film might be some kind of family-approved gloss-over, but it’s not. It feels like an honest, upfront, no-bullshit assessment. Nobody’s afraid or reluctant to discuss anything.
It contends, for one thing, that while Clift was closeted he wasn’t conflicted or tortured over his sexuality.
It goes a little soft in talking frankly about the alcohol and drug addictions that ended Cliff’s life at age 46 (from a heart attack), but it insists that despite everyone having concluded that Clift spent the last ten years of his life slowly committing suicide, he loved living and wanted to keep going as best he could for as long as he could. The conversational tapes and movie footage reveal a relatively happy, spirited, engaged, curious, intellectually agile fellow for the most part.
It’s especially fascinating because Brooks Clift, dissatisfied with the LaGuardia biography and even the respected Bosworth chronicle, wanted to write his own biography of his younger brother, but never got it done. And so Robert, utilizing all kinds of movies and tapes that his father had kept, has kind of written it for him, in a way. He’s told the tale that his father would have.
Sidenote: My God, Monty looked so old by the time he hit his early 40s. He looked like a guy in his mid to late 50s. And he had two different voices. Before the horrible 1956 car accident that destroyed his looks Clift’s voice was smooth and confident for the most part, and a lot less frail and croaky and reedy-sounding. His Rudolph Petersen voice in Judgment at Nuremberg never would or could have come out of his mouth during the Red River to Indiscretion of an American Wife days (’46 to ’54). It’s like after the accident he gradually transformed into this traumatized, half-spazzy person with a shell-shocked look in his eyes.
Consider Robert Thom‘s Esquire piece about Clift (“A Small Place In The Sun“), published eight months after his death.
From “Clift Is Fading Away,” posted on 9.30.14:
“In my mind Montgomery Clift, the first method-y actor to punch through the studio system and become a major star, peaked from Red River through From Here To Eternity — a seven-year run. From the early to mid ’50s Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean were the reigning acting gods…legendary figures then and, I thought, still iconic figures today.
“But two days ago it hit me that Clift is no longer regarded as a major figure, or is certainly not regarded in the same light as Brando or Dean. My older son Jett, to whom I showed classic films all through his early youth and who knows the cinema realm fairly well, had to be reminded who Clift was when his name came up in conversation, and he couldn’t name a single film that Clift starred in, not even Red River or I Confess or A Place In The Sun or Eternity. His girlfriend Caitlin, a whipsmart marketing professional, knows Clift’s name but couldn’t remember any of his films.
“I’m presuming these two are canaries in the Millennial coal mine. If they don’t know who Clift was, nobody does. Am I wrong? I’m not talking about serious GenY film hounds — I’m talking about casual Netflix/Hulu viewers and people who go to maybe two or three films a month. It’s a shock. For the under-35s Montgomery Clift might as well be John Ireland or Wendell Corey or Burgess Meredith.
“In my mind Clift, the first method-y actor to punch through the studio system and become a major star, peaked from Red River through From Here To Eternity — a seven-year run. But after the accident he went from being one of the best-looking actors who’d ever lived to a twitchy geek with big ears and a crackly, spazzy voice. The legend is that it took Clift ten years to kill himself. Upon his death in July 1966 the final decade of his life was called “the slowest suicide in show-business history” or words to that effect.